Do you like novel sorcery? Do you like new-fangled wizardry?
Are you a creative fantasy fiction author?
If you enjoy playing with magic and conceptualizing & planning your own magical systems, and you love to give new powers and special abilities to your fictional characters, you’ll want to be part of my nifty list (below) of modizardry (i.e. modern wizardry) and brand new pseudoscientific paranormalogicals!
In other words, here’s some crazy new magic conjured-up by me (along with the proper scientific nomenclature)
It’s not a finalized list — I expect to add to it when new ideas occur to me — and I think you can help too…
Here’s a challenge: if you have your own new magic, send it in and I’ll add it to this alpha list.
Submit your idea, with or without scientific nomenclature, and I will add it to this list and I’ll credit you as the inventor. Tweet me @neilmach
Good luck! : )
Agathodemonic Therianthropy – humans that are turned (or can turn themselves) into animal spirits to do the bidding of others
Alchemical Apotropaism — altering or recovering from base metals fundamental substances (elements such as gold or diamond) to counter or protect against demons, ghosts, or evil sorcerers
Bilocating Suffumigation — sending oneself into other dimensions by becoming smoke or flames (an ability to travel as a wisp of smoke)
Postcogniscent Astrality — travelling back in time astrally by leaving one’s mortal body to perceive past events as if one is actually there, visiting as a spirit
Sciomantic Astrality — to leave a mortal body and enter the otherworld as a free spirit with the intention of communicating with the dead in their own plane
Exorcistic Cacodaemoning – working with or controlling bad spirits so they grow within others to do one’s (your) bidding
Psychokinetic Chaldeanics — changing or improving the weather or climate by mental (psychokinetic) means
Faith-Fate Controlling — providing (or taking away) general “luck” i.e. good (bad) fortune by the miraculous laying of hands
Spellcrafting Genethialogy — predicting the future loves of a new born and then providing him/her/it with the necessary spells/charms to protect against, invite or capture that predicted love/romance in the future
Haemonic Entrapment — to magically entrap or enslave a person using herbcraft
Runic Harusipication — interpreting omens and signs by deciphering runes
Metamorphic Perceptionism — gaining or using supernormal, otherworldly or magical senses by becoming an entity from one’s own dreamscape and then travelling through time and space as that dream-creature
Predestinic Necromanticism — to improve one’s own opportunities (or, conversely, to debilitate another’s opportunities) inside “death” (the otherworld) by altering one’s “death” fortunes whilst still alive
Psychoscopic Teleportation — moving back and forth in time (temporarily) by inhabiting an almost eternal substance i.e. space rock, star dust, a meteorite, etc.
Psychokinetic Materialization / de-materialization — making things appear or disappear using the power of astral thought (i.e. by psychokinetic creation)
Prophetic jinxing and hexing — employing curses or hexes that launch or activate at a foreordained or pre-postulated time in a victim’s future
Got your own? Don’t forget to send them to me and I’ll add them to the list and credit you! Tweet @neilmach
For many fantasy fiction authors, therianthropy means raging werewolves, murderous human/beast hybrids (similar to Mr Hyde as shown above) or magical shape-shifting creatures, malformed humanoids, or transformations from frog into prince.
But the voluntary change from human to beast has been an exciting & enticing means of escape, exploration, and liberation for humans since the earliest stone age societies. Plus, it’s a great way for a fantasy author to connect to amazing otherworlds without having to enter phantasmagorical or fanciful rabbit-holes of delusion. In fact, therianthropy can (and is) performed by most of us (if not all… I’ll explain this in a moment) — and it’s a natural part of our shared human experience. So what precisely is it?
The word, at least in ancient Greek terms, meant to become a human beast or, interchangeably, to become a beastly human. But the word also implied a metamorphic transformation (i.e. a morphing) from one “state” to another.
The earliest example of human transformation into bestial form comes to us from a cave painting created at least 13,000 years ago in a cave in south-western France (the Three Brothers). This special cave contains several engravings of human beasts, but perhaps the most famous is the so-called “Dancing Sorcerer” — which is a portrayal of a half-man + half-deer (it might be a bison or an antelope, the jury is still out). When you examine this ancient engraving (see below) it will remind you of what a neo-pagan shaman might do in tribal ceremonies: because we know that a shaman will adopt and dramatise the “guise” of a wild creature to commune with the spirit world, to communicate with demons, angels or deities, to treat disease, to go on a vision-seeking quest, or to undertake some other form of divination (predicting the future.)
You will have seen, for example, images of a tribal “witch doctor” dressed in furs (and perhaps with a head adorned with antlers or wings) and this type of shaman is frequently enlisted by those tribes that hunt & follow a particular animal species (some tribes rely upon just one animal for their food, tools, clothing, etc. for example the Sámi people rely on reindeer, and the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains once relied upon bison.) If the tribe’s beast became scarce… there was a belief that “releasing” the souls of dead animals would also free the herds of living and breathing animals..so they might be hunted again. And that is why the shaman was generally seen “dressed up” as the favourite game animal of the tribe (bison, antelope or deer). More disturbing, though, the shaman might “dress up as” (and therefore take-on the aggressive role) of a fierce alpha predator (perhaps a wolf, a leopard, or a lion) — to claim supremacy over the hunted game (or, sometimes, conquest over a rival tribe.)
In some cultures there’s a belief that “invisible stories” can only be seen when a person assumes an animal body. The shamans who see these invisible stories are frequently called “skin walkers” — they are the people with a supernatural ability to turn into any animal they wish, as long as they first use the skin of the chosen animal, worn in most cases over human skin. This is a perspective that will interest you as a writer of fantasy fiction and is an idea that shapes modern ideas around animal cos-play.
“If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or jaguar…”
Some animals, even in their earthly & physical forms, are seen as enlightened spirits: and this is especially true in the eagle’s case, and also the snake, the jaguar, the wolf, the cat, and the rat. So, for example, if a tribe asks their shaman to see beyond a mountain range and into a remote valley, the shaman might “take the shape” of an eagle (usually in an ecstatic trance, and frequently after taking a shed-load of mood-enhancing psychoactive substances and putting on a head-dress of feathers) so he’d be able to “fly” into the valley to see the hidden things for himself, and report back to the tribe. If it was necessary to infiltrate a small place, perhaps a warehouse or a grain barn owned by an enemy tribe, the shaman could take the form of a rat to climb into holes and search for treasure in confined spaces. If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or a jaguar to “fight” an invisible threat, because such animals are fearless even in the face of terrible danger. As a snake, the shaman could move between dimensions (because a snake swims in water, climbs trees, lives in the utter darkness of caves, wriggles across fire, and moves smoothly through deadly swamps, etc.) As a cat, a shaman might be able pass beyond the boundaries of unseen dimensions (because cats are believed to pass through walls) and “view” intangibles that are too subtle for the human eye.
Often, the shapeshifting experience will occur at a festival (or a special ceremonial time of the year) and will be attended by fasting followed by feasting, vigils followed by parties, rapturous dancing, ceremonial singing, and (often) plenty of mayhem and crazy antics. It will involve the entire tribe and the tribe will witness the shapeshift as the magic “happens.” It is an important shared event because it strengthens and fosters faith in the shaman’s powers, and intensifies & enhances tribal traditions and doctrines.
Think abut using this type of ritualistic temporary therianthropy in your next fantasy tale, and please let me know if you’ve used a shaman in your project. Tweet me @neilmach
A few words about Otherkin and the roots of furry fandom
Some ancient cultures believe there is an animal counterpart to every human person. We often say things like: “don’t be such a greedy pig” or “he’s such a stubborn ass” or “she can be a real bitch” — so the concept is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. While an experienced shaman will acquire the spiritual attributes of various beasts (through ceremonies, dances, trances, and the use of psychoactive substances) — there is a suggestion that everyone (yes, everyone) might be able harness and “tap into” their animal counterpart. We find stories of humans descending from animals in many oral traditions (they often form an important part of tribal and clan histories) and even “modern” societies are distinguished (perhaps caricatured, though not always in a flattering way) by animal counterparts i.e. the bulldog represents the British, the bear represents the Russians, and so on ) — so it might be possible for each of us to transform into the animal of our clan. For example, indigenous North American traditions suggest that some tribes might have bears as ancestors (so tribe members would “tap into” their bear) and in Turkic mythology, some tribes claim wolf ancestry (so tribe members would “tap into” their wolf.)
The otherkin are these same types of people: they are a subculture that identifies as not wholly human because they access their animal inner-selves. Some otherkin believe their beast-identity is derived from reincarnation, while others claim direct ancestry (such as the Turkic peoples that I just mentioned), while others simply claim a metaphorical connection (hidden similarities) or enjoy the role-playing aspect of “becoming” their chosen animal because they feel a special affinity with it (for some, the sense of confinement and restraint when bound inside an animal entity is an exciting turn-on.)
If you ever compared yourself to the traits of your astrological zodiac sign (a lion, a ram, a crab, etc.) or you thought your Chinese Lunar Animal perfectly describes you (a tiger, a rabbit, a dragon etc) you will have (unknowingly) placed yourself in this group because you invoked an anthropomorphic avatar that you connected or sympathised with. Though, I ought to add that some Otherkin folk self-identify with entirely mythical creatures such as angels, demons, elves, fairies, extra-terrestrials, and even cartoon characters.
Some members of Otherkin communities claim to shapeshift mentally and/or astrally into their chosen beast, and this suggests they experience a “sense of alternate being” whilst shifted into their chosen form: even though they haven’t actually changed physicality (they might wear a mask or a very simple costume, perhaps stick-on ears, for example).
This light role-playing version of the Otherkin phenomena is known as furry fandom. Catgirls and catboys are the most prolific identities in the furry fandom subculture, although we’ve seen bunny girls too (they are becoming promoted after an long absence) and foxfolk, dogfolk and wolf-folk are quite common sights on social networks.
This is yet another perspective on therianthropy (shapeshifting) that you might want to explore further in your fantasy writing. Let me know if you have any tips, advice, or suggestions…
FLUXUS was an important international and interdisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets who participated in experimental artistic performances during the 1960s and 1970s. The key was to emphasize the artistic process over any finished product.
Fluxus artists tended to engage in interdisciplinary artistic activities (they used the term “intermedia” to explain these activities — for instance, a combination of drawing and poetry, or a combination of painting and theater). A great example of an interdisciplinary artistic activity could be the Japanese poems known as Haiga which are typically lines of poetry painted alongside images, with the same brush and ink.
Simple “comic book” stories combine works of art with lines of dialogue in much the same way. If you were (are) a fan of the Illuminae Archives (by authors Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman) — the 2015 space opera that used photocopied documents, emails, and interview transcripts (as well as diagrams and other non-textual material) — to tell an otherwise fairly straightforward retro space-adventure in a bold and graphic way for novel, then you’ll understand the remarkable oomph that an interdisciplinary approach can bring to fiction. I don’t expect you to be able to produce a graphic novel or illustrate your next story book, but you might be able to add a piece of contextual art to your next poem or a doodle to your short story, huh?
Fluxus is all about interpretation, explication and visualization:
So, if you can:
Express your thoughts using some ‘other’ (non text-based) artistic language that helps make sense of ideas (or helps clarify ideas for your audience)… you’ll be using the fluxus!
Elaborate your thoughts, making them simple to understand to your audience, with diagrams, maps, spoken word, songs, crafts, or some other non-text-based art form… you’ll be using the fluxus!
Summarize your thoughts in an interpretive way that provides a mental picture to your audience of something that is otherwise invisible or abstract to them … you’ll be using the fluxus!
There are (loose) rules for fluxus:
Fluxus is an attitude (not a style)
Fluxus is about intermedia (seeing how common or everyday objects might intersect with each other to illustrate our work)
Fluxus is simple (the work ought to be short, brief, and just a small digression)
Fluxus is fun — it’s meant to get your imagination bubbling — it should be a lighthearted pursuit and can be as silly as you like
Fluxus works best when it is childlike, so be guileless, be unselfconscious and be playful when you fluxperiment
But how inventive can you be with your fluxperiments?
You don’t have to be totally bonkers or totally avante-garde, or revolutionary or countercultural-transgressive to take on the fluxus. You don’t have to be pretentious or “uppity” to be in this group of free-thinkers either! This isn’t about making arty-farty creations that nobody wants to see or hear (ha ha!). Instead, it’s about blurring boundaries between art forms. And, let’s be clear, we do it every day, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us! This is the key to understanding the fluxus: remembering that all you’re doing is blurring boundaries between art forms.
Have you ever used an emoji at the end of a sentence? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever scribbled a doodle on a napkin and pinned it to your cork board? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a picture postcard for a mood-board that, in a way, “says” everything you want to say about your protagonist? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever chosen a pop song that encourages the progress of your main character through the quest? Yes? That’s the fluxus. Have you ever admired the thoughts behind a funny meme and thought it summed-up your opinions? Yes? that’s the fluxus. These are all examples of using everyday fluxus because they all blur the boundaries between art forms
Tip 1: Try creating concrete poetry. For example, if you are writing a poem about an egg, the words you use will form an oval shape on the page. If you are writing a poem about your heroine, the words could form a set of angel wings on the page. A poem about a villain could form a set of terrifying bat wings! Try experimenting too… perhaps (when you set out) you don’t know what shape your words will create… so just put your words into a “form” (shape) and turn the paper upside-down once you’re done, to alter your perspective! What does the shape remind you of?
Tip 2: Try creating a coloring calligram. Use a phrase that you’ve written before and that you’re quite proud of, or a piece of text (a paragraph you’ve written, perhaps) and then present those words inside a related thematic image. It will be like “coloring in” but instead of crayons or paints, you’ll be using words. For example, if your antagonist is described as a demonic being with horns and hooves, try presenting those words within the image of a fanged werewolf. You can “make” the outline image yourself by sketching it out before you try “filling it in” with words. But please limit yourself to old words (be strict with yourself, you can only use the words from your excerpt … not any new words… this isn’t about writing something new, it’s about blurring boundaries between sketching & writing.) if you can’t sketch, you can find an outline of the image you want to use (search online or get an adult coloring book) and then “fill in” the chosen image with your carefully chosen words.
Tip 3: Create free-form sound art. Grab your smartphone or gadget for this one. Recall a moment (a scene) from the fiction you’re currently writing and press record. Say (out loud) a batch of single words (not sentences, it’s important that these words don’t ‘join up’ to form sentences… or you’ll not get a “free flow” of ideas.) This is not about cohesiveness, grammar or punctuation, but about sounds. If your words have a connectedness and an interdependence, that’s fine… but if they don’t… that’s fine too! This is also about encouraging free thought. What you’re aiming for here is vitality, aliveness and richness of sounds. Don’t record more than twenty seconds though. In fact, keep it shorter if you possibly can. Have a few goes. Allow your subconscious creativity to do all the work! If you feel like it, you can share your sound-art on your socials and explain to your readers that you’ve been doing a bit of fluxus! I’m sure they’ll be very impressed! Ha ha!
Tip 4: Try finding some publication poetry. I have been doing this once-a-week, every week, since Christmas. I like to use glossy magazines for this fluxus (the brighter and the glossier the better, and I am especially fond of the food & cooking pages.) First, I find a word (or sometimes a phrase) that says something about the work that I am currently doing. You would think it would be impossible to find a word or phrase related to fantasy fiction in a magazine article written about cooking, wouldn’t you? But it’s not… it’s surprisingly easy. Once I have found what I call the “hook” word, maybe the word “angel” from an angel-cake recipe… I pick up a thick pen (a sharpie) or a highlighter (there are two approaches to this) but the general idea is to find the rest of the words that have been “hidden” within the text by the original author (unknown to him or her, of course!) and link them all up to create your own work. So, with your marker-pen you reveal a poem. And it’s a “found poem.” You will either: a) highlight the “correct” words or b) disguise the “incorrect” words or c) a bit of both. But, whichever technique you choose, you will recover a lost poem that has been hidden on the page. (see the illustration below) It is a bit like the archaeology of words. When you do this, I am sure you will discover rewarding and quite extraordinary passages that will magically unfold in front of your very eyes. You will be presented with new thoughts that will help you hone, enable and even facilitate meanings that you had not considered before. Give it a go!
Let me know about your fluxperiments and fluxperiences by tweeting me @neilmach
Seeing ghostly images in the mirror is a form of scrying. I’ll get into that shortly…
But let’s begin by agreeing that mirrors are, of course, portals to other dimensions.
Just ponder the rationality of that simple statement for a moment. When you look into a mirror, you don’t see yourself. Not really. You merely see a mirrored version of yourself. The tint, texture, and contour of the glass will slightly modify or manipulate the mirrored version that you observe. Therefore it’s not you. It’s a version of you. Remember this when checking your face in the morning!
What’s more (and this is even more difficult to understand, so take a breath): the person in the mirror is not the same person that everyone else sees. Not only is the person in the mirror not you (because it’s a modified version) but it’s not even the “you” everyone else sees! Others see a presented image of yourself. The mirror provides a reflected image of yourself. In short, if you really want to examine your “true self” ditch the mirror and don’t worry about what people think or say; instead look deep into your inner being. Right, that’s the Snow White “evil queen complex” dealt with — but it’s drifting away from the main point… so let’s get back on track —
It is important to stipulate that I am not suggesting (at this stage) that anything supernatural is going on when we look into mirrors. But on the other hand, I also think we should properly appreciate how genuinely weird a mirrored surface is. We take shiny surfaces for granted, probably because we’re staring at them for much of the day. Shiny surfaces have a magical authority over us… and even an absolute control over our existence in certain cases. If you don’t believe me, try taking someone’s phone away or denying them a television screen.
But back to common-or-garden mirrors, I think it’s because the symmetrical reality of the “mirror world” we experience (I call it the symmetrylity) seems so compelling and perceptive that we don’t recognize the deep and intrinsic flaws in our thinking. We honestly believe that the mirror world is real. However, it is not. It is another dimension. For example, how strange is it that when two people look into a mirror at the same time, they see different images on the same surface! And when a person looks at himself in a mirror, what he really sees is the front and back reversed! You need to be a mathematics teacher if you want to explain the inter-dimensional aspect of mirrors.
Although we might expect a “standard” mirror (perhaps the mirror in the hall) to behave in a rational way, and to always provide an accurate representation of the world around us (albeit in reverse) it’s not true. It won’t! When a glassy surface is not held completely flat then it will behave like a lens and will distort (magnify) what we see. And a mirror that is tilted even moderately (maybe not flat against a wall) will give seemingly realistic results, but it will skew images. While a mirror that curves even insignificantly will, nonetheless, reduce larger images.
If you add these factors to the strange ability that mirrors possess (they allow us to “see behind ourselves” without turning around, which is one of the most useful benefits of reflective surfaces, but it’s also a bit like looking into the past) — when all these attributes are put together you can guess why some folks claim to see visions in mirrored surfaces. And it’s why humankind, since prehistoric times, has used reflective surfaces to attempt to perceive future events or “see” outside the perspective space & time they found themselves somewhat limited by.
Mirrored surfaces, such as the still dark waters of a sacred pool, or the waters glimpsed in a baptismal font, or polished stones & jewels, or very shiny goblets, or glass spheres, have been used since prehistoric times — for clairvoyance (seeing into future), augury (interpreting omens), and divination (the gift of prophecy). When a reflective surface is used for these paranormal activities, it is called scrying.
Concentrating on the medium of exploration (the reflective surface) is said to help scrying practitioners “focus attention” and “free their mind” in much the same way that a guru might meditate or a priest might be prayerful before a religious service. Maybe it’s a kind of self-hypnosis. After this approach, a scryer might report “seeing” images in a reflective surface. Some scryers even report hearing voices. The famous French seer of the 16th century, Nostradamus, practiced scrying before making his famous predictions; he’d stare into a bowl of water or use a “magic mirror” to see the future world while in a trance. Mirrors seem to lift the veil between what we consider our physical realm and a glimpsed spiritual realm. And it is true that ancient civilizations (such as the Mayans) thought mirrors functioned as two-way portals between humanity and gods.
To understand how mirrors might act as portals, we need to recognise that luminescent surfaces are regarded by some as representations of liminal space and can therefore be thresholds between natural and spiritual realms. To learn more about the fascinating topic of liminality, you’ll need to listen to episodes 13, then episode 40, and episode 51 of my Myth & Magic podcast. I also cover the subject of liminality in depth, in my non-fiction writer’s manual “So You Want To Write Fantasy?” But I think it’s interesting to note that people tend to approach mirrors to ask important questions about their existence and future opportunities at liminal moments in their life (at any thresholds they might encounter.) For example, on a wedding night, getting ready for a funeral, before a big presentation at work or in the dark waters of a font at the moment of baptism. (Note: a child younger than 18 months cannot “see” a reflected image, but what do the godparents see?)
In literature (especially in fantasy fiction) there is a tradition of using mirrors to combine thoughts on mythology and cosmology and to describe a method of visiting multiple worlds that are typically outside a character’s limitations. I am sure you can think of a hundred examples. A mirror is a useful device because it allows the protagonist to wander (in mind and spirit) without having to leave a prosaic existence. Sometimes there is even the suggestion of a physical trip to an “otherworld”. Thus, Alice reflects on what it must be like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflective surface, so she chooses to travel “Through the Looking-Glass” in Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale. Alice discovers an alternate dimension in which everything is reversed, including logic (so, for example, running takes you nowhere, walking away from something returns you to it). She finds that her mirror world is divided into sections by streams (reflective surfaces too) suggesting there are a myriad more dimensions to choose from. Harry Potter comes across a “mirror of desire” perhaps that he might be tempted to use to turn back time (a mirror of Erised) or that can be used as a scrying tool to see his (dead) parents.
So, returning to the central question, can ghosts be seen in mirrors? Some people, notably those who are prone to such things, are almost certain to “see” puzzling images in reflected surfaces. Some reported sightings might be because of sensory deprivation (the darkness of the pool or the glow of the chalice), or skewed images that might prove unreliable because of a less than perfect surface. We must also take the mental state of the seer into account (is she at a threshold in life? Is it a time of stress and change?) And the health and mindfulness of the seer must be examined, plus their use of recreational, religious / mystical substances, medicines or intoxicants, and the seer’s lack of sleep, and a host of other factors.
There is probably a lot of pareidolia going on too. Pareidolia is the disposition of all observers to see recognizable objects, patterns — and even messages — in totally disconnected presentations. So, for example, we all see faces in everyday objects. How often have you looked at an electrical socket and thought it seemed to be a smiling face looking back? We all see visions in clouds. And we all see spooky humanoids in reflections. Pareidolia is not some kind of psychosis: it is a normal human tendency. And it explains many curious things.
We must also consider the subjective nature of experience: sometimes we too easily forget that we perceive our environments in a completely different way from those around us. The “seen and understood” universe that we experience differs entirely from the “seen and understood” universe that everyone else experiences. This is due to our sensory perceptions being unique to us. They say that each of us has a unique pattern: but we ought to remember that each of us also experiences a uniquely different world — and although our worlds overlap and seem to have many things in common with each other — each world is experienced in a totally different way. So anyone, at any point in their life, might experience what psychologists will call a benign hallucination on a mirrored surface. It is likely to happen to all of us!
Yes, ghosts are seen in mirrors. And that’s perhaps the least disconcerting aspect of reflective surfaces!
Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach
We want to believe in something that’s exciting, wondrous, and dumbfounding. It’s the nature of human expectation.
Our worldview has evolved so we expect to “attain” the unattainable “reach” the unreachable and “think” the unthinkable. This gives us the drive and determination to create and develop. So, of course, fantasy authors turn to sparkling promise and glistering dreamstuff when they write fantasy epics. They choose to rustle things from thin air, and they like to create characters that come super-equipped with extraordinary — perhaps even preposterous — potential.
And let’s be clear, science has taught us that nothing is truly impossible: “Any science or technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” said novelist Arthur C. Clarke. This means that if anyone ever reliably demonstrates magic, it’s not magic any longer… because it has become science!
But why do some readers hate magic so much? And what can we do, as fantasy authors, to offset or reduce these reader aversions?
Well, for a start, it might be because these folk think of themselves as rationalists so they don’t base their beliefs on emotional responses and untested knowledge. They almost certainly don’t base their understanding of this universe on tittle-tattle. Such level-headed individuals are quite certain that there’s little or no physical evidence to show the existence of what we like to think of as “magic.” Most accounts of magic are just urban myths, cautionary tales based on symbolism, superstitions based on quasi-religious beliefs, fantasy inspired hoaxes or enjoyable ‘campfire’ anecdotes.
Often we learn of magical happenings by re-quoting or hearing about the experiences of a friend of a friend. (This is what’s known in social science circles as: FOAF) When sharing knowledge of supernatural experiences, there is a tendency to offer no actual firsthand testimony of a magical event; neither will any witnesses be put forward to test the accuracy of the testimony — in fact, the identity of witnesses is never known to the narrator, because witnesses to supernatural events are generally FOAF; in other words, the narrative is little more than hearsay.
Second, there has never been a magic spell or an enchantment that has been subjected to peer review. So, without refereeing, how can we ever trust something that’s not been tested for quality standards or performance? How has its credibility been proved?
Next there’s the upsyturvy conundrum. How come, not once, has there ever been an empirical scientific discovery that has been deemed wrong, only to be replaced by a more convincing magical explanation? Yet, the upsyturvy upshot is very often the case —it happens the other way around, all the time. For example, here are some magical ideas that have scientific explanations:
stones that fall from space [physicist Ernst Chladni proved meteorites come from space, in 1794]
human-created force fields [these became a verifiable fact in 1995 with the invention of the “plasma window”]
invisibility [research into metamaterials to make objects disappear continue, breakthroughs were in 2006]
teleportation [entanglement of large molecules was proved possible in 2002]
And what about controlling gravity to move things around? Or manipulating cells so wounds fix faster? Research is being done into both those things right now, with marked success. So, how come we can’t “wish” a spacecraft into orbit or make a talisman that provides its wearer with immunization against all ills? How come angels don’t arrive to save people from disaster? How come voodoo doesn’t protect the rain-forests? And when (if) these things ever happen, won’t they be scientific break-throughs?
Lastly, there’s the immutable balance of universal forces to contend with. In the universe there’s an equilibrium that depends on fundamental forces such as: gravity, strong force, weak force, and electromagnetism. It’s possible that there are universal forces yet to be discovered, though there can’t be many and they must be rare. But we can safely assume that the balance of the universe can’t be shifted or confounded without Cartesian notions of causation.
So what can we do about these inconsistencies as fantasy authors? How will we make our magic more believable? How will we bridge the gaps and jump the obstacles?
As a fantasy author, you might one-day face a crisis… how do you include “acceptable” magic in your writings? Here are some tips:
Write about emotions. Emotions are magic. We cannot see them. They cannot be evaluated. And they manifest themselves in different ways and differently from person to person. However, they are part of our human experience and being emotional is a magic we all perform. Concentrate on emotions in your storytelling.
Write about storytelling. Words are magic. Think about it. As an author you pass a “thought” from one person to another using telepathy and a scatter of runes (runes are just the ink spots on paper or dots on the screen). How does this magic happen? How does a story materialize into the mind of the recipient?
Write about maths. Numbers are magic. Numbers don’t really exist. They are simply convenient ideas that might be scratched onto paper or evaluated.
Write about money. Money is magic because numerals are magic. Money doesn’t exist. Money is just a convenient idea that can be easily assessed within a spreadsheet.
Write about humans. Humans are magical beings. You don’t need unicorns and werewolves to add magic to your story. We come “out of nowhere” and one day we will enter “into nothingness.” However, for a short time we are capable of singing, laughing, inventing, creating and loving. Isn’t that magical? We seem so ordinary, yet we encompass everything that is impossible. And that is true magic. Isn’t it?
Or: the pragmatic approach to paranormal verification
What may appear to be a puzzling supernatural experience / manifestation to one witness may have an entirely rational & scientific explanation to a better informed researcher. It is imperative that we rule-out any obvious explanation for unexplained phenomena before drawing conclusions.
Most of us know that bumps, creaks and all kinds of strange noises and sensations (the so-called bumps-in-the-night) can be readily attributed to drying building beams, expanding floorboards, bats in the attic, mice behind the plaster, breezes through vents, etc. Anyone who has encountered the hiss of a barn owl when agitated (they like to hang out in old lofts, church-yards and ruins) will attest to this. It’s the most chilling and macabre sound you can possibly imagine (check the video at the foot of the page.) We might place these explanations under one broad heading: “environmental and biological.”
But less is known about the following rational explanations for “paranormal” encounters — and these should also be taken into account when we review and examine someone’s testimony:
The Frequency of Fear
Below the range of human hearing, infrasound will cause strange sensations in some people. Humans will not naturally hear sound below 20 Hertz, but some people unconsciously respond to these lower frequencies. It has been scientifically proven that feelings of fear or dread can accompany low frequency vibrations
Remedy: Eliminate any sound waves below or around 19 Hertz (fans, heaters, pumps, etc.)
Unusual Electromagnetic Fields
In many ghost hunting activities electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are played with, but without proper explanation. It ought to be remembered that these gauges are typically used to diagnose electrical problems with domestic wiring etc. According to a reliable neuroscientific study, magnetic stimulation (even weak fields) can produce what some witnesses describe as “an inexplicable presence” in a room. If the Earth’s geomagnetic field needs to be checked, a gauss meter (magnetometer) will be required.
Remedy: rule out all electromagnetic fields, use an EMF meter to check that none are present
If it can be convincingly proven that drugs, narcotics, intoxicants, or any other substance had not influenced the witness prior to their encounter, it is still possible that carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and / or pesticides were present. Carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, and also some pesticides, cause symptoms of panic, paranoia and loss of consciousness (also, hallucination)
Remedy: Check the area with a multi-gas meter for flammable gases, CH4 / CO / O2 and H2S, and also use a formaldehyde detector, to establish an absence of toxic gases
It is well known that sleep paralysis causes subjects to hallucinate (they hear, feel or see things that are not there) — so it must be clearly established that the witness did not fall asleep during their encounter. It is known that previous poor sleep patterns can trigger this condition, and also psychological stress, or abnormal sleep cycles, so we should rule these conditions out before further investigation. The use of commonly obtained antidepressants is also the cause of sleep paralysis.
Remedy: rule out all triggers and ensure the witness uses a device to monitor blood oxygen levels, heart rate, body position, body movements, intensity of snoring (a diagnostic PSG device) in future tests. This will help to detect and track sleep
The Ghost Train Principle
Studies show that participants who “expected” to be thrilled at some kind of event (because they visited a supposedly “haunted” place, for example, or they voluntarily took part in a game where certain results were expected —a séance or a ghost hunt, perhaps) will experience the same sense of excitement and gratification as all the other participants, even though nothing tangible actually “scared” them or even made them nervous.
We see this disposition in common-or-garden fairground attractions: even taking a mediocre and unsatisfying ride on a “Ghost Train” ride will provoke shrieks and squeals in us as well as our friends, even though we are not scared at all! Humans like to be scared, and it’s more more fun to be scared when we’re with other thrill seekers; we enjoy sharing the tingle & excitement of spooky times. This way, people will be exposed to social influence (friends in a group will be delighted with the possibility of something supernatural happening, while the more pragmatic tend to go along with things, maybe because they don’t want to let folks down… in fact they want to please them) — this is when a witness may become susceptible to deception (of self and others). This phenomena is known as: suggestion through positive social influence. After all, what’s worse than a naysayer or spoilsport at a Halloween party? Nobody wants to be dubbed a party pooper or a buzzkiller… right? Even the most ambivalent and sober person will want to “go along” for the ride.
Remedy: rule out positive social influence by limiting the number of witnesses. If there’s a requirement to have more than one witness at an event, each witness must be unknown to any other (all must be strangers) and this fact must be established beforehand, and be beyond any doubt. Witnesses must not come to an event with any pre-conceived notions. For example, they must not think it’s a séance.
Tips, ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach
Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.
or: how to kill a character in a way that will break your reader’s heart
Sooner or later you will get to the point where you have to write a purpose-filled death for one of your main characters.
This will be a character that you and your readership will already have built a successful relationship with (so the death will come as a shock). You’ll want to make sure you pick the right time and place for such a momentous milestone.
But be aware that this death will not be over in a chapter. And will take a while to build. There will be consequences (the five stages of grief, for example) and there will be an accumulation of events. The story will build-up to the moment and rumble on afterwards.
Note, also, that the path to the death scene might not be a slow decline for your character, but rather an ascendant (perhaps transcendent) climb to what you might call the pyramid of martyrdom, where the sacrifice is the pinnacle of the character’s sum achievement and worth in your story.
Ask yourself these key questions. What does your character:
Also, think about this: how would your character want to be commemorated? Memorialised?
Now set your mind against all these possibilities and think of the worst possible outcomes for your hero by turning things completely around and switching things on their head (this will also help you to show-not-tell).
The hero fears spiders? Getting attacked by a multitude of giant spiders is too easy. What about this? The hero has to save a spider, but this triggers an early death (perhaps squished by a mutant fly)
The hero stands for honesty? The hero is tried and executed for telling lies is too easy. What about this? The character has to defend a known liar out of compassion / duty, but this causes a fall (the liar survives) and the hero suffers a wretched death
The hero opposes all forms of bullying? Attacked by a notorious bully and beaten to pulp is too easy. What about this? The hero has to form an alliance with a notorious thug to help humanity / others, but this causes a hero’s fall from grace and subsequent death in ignominy (everyone thinks the hero has been the bully all along)
The hero loves animals? Savaged by a much loved pet is too easy. What about this: the hero must destroy a large number of animals to save a family / loved one / the world. But this leads to the hero’s disgrace and gradual decline toward darkness & extinction. No one will ever know that the hero sacrificed his/her own values for the sake of those he/she loved
The hero excels at swordsmanship, but is brought down by a complete beginner is too easy. What about this? The hero’s excellence at the craft propels him/her to the top of all ranks and makes him/her dominant in the field, but this means the hero does not learn simple (new) lessons / tactics that everyone below his/her position will have discovered / performed / practiced. I mean, everyone uses a crossbow these days, don’t they? How did he/she not know?
The hero is famed for being insightful but is brought down by an unthinking idiot is too easy. What about this? The hero’s perceptual intellect enables him/her to identify dangers that lay way ahead, but the hero becomes so consumed by remote dangers that he/she does not see or recognize a greater and more deadly threat that sits right under their very nose.
So try these character turn-rounds / transformations / volte-faces / capitulations… and approach the death of your character while avoiding melodrama and stale tropes.
Neil mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.